Warner Castle & the Sunken Garden: Two Public Gems in Highland Park

All photos in this blog were taken by George Payne

 To my knowledge, Warner Castle on Mt. Hope is the only actual castle that exists in our city. This stone fortress with a sunken garden in the backyard, was constructed in 1854, to resemble the ancestral castle of the Clan Douglas which supposedly fascinated Horatio Gates Warner, the building’s owner, during a visit to Scotland. Warner, a prominent lawyer, capitalist, and newspaper editor, had not only royal aspirations, but also the means to make his ambitions a reality.


Photo by George Payne

In many people’s opinion, this Gothic styled castle is just as much an architectural statement today as it was in 1854; but the real treasure is the Sunken Garden designed by famous landscape architect, Alling S. DeForest (1875-1957). DeForest studied with the Olmsted Firm, learning the trade from the world’s greatest landscape architect and apostle of public spaces himself, Frederick Law Olmsted. Fittingly, the Warner Castle is now owned and operated by the Monroe County Parks Department and rests within the tranquil arboretum of Highland Park, perhaps one of Frederick Law Olmsted’s most impressive municipal achievements. (Highland Park was also Rochester’s first park after the land was donated to the city by the horticulturists George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry.)



According to the Rochester Civic Garden Center, “in 1912, Frank and Merry Ackerman Dennis, owners of the Dennis Candy Factory and candy stores purchased the castle. They commissioned DeForest to design gardens for the site beginning around 1920. His plan for the grounds included the Sunken Garden completed in 1930, a courtyard, rose and woodland gardens.”

I have since learned that Alling Stephen DeForest, a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, “contributed to a wide variety of landscape designs, both public and private, during the early 20th Century. DeForest’s most notable projects were the original landscape of the George Eastman House on East Avenue in Rochester and the gardens of the Harbel Manor, the Akron, Ohio home of Harvey Firestone. Although the majority of his designs were the landscapes of private estates, he also designed campuses, housing developments, cemeteries and parks.” To see more Warner Castle info, go here:

The one eyed Warner Castle cat. Quite friendly!

To this day, there is a romantic aura to this space. It feels like it has been carved out of a Jane Austen novel. Adding to the mystique, I read online that apparently there had been at one point a catacomb entrance located in the sunken garden that has since been sealed, but I can’t say if this has been verified.

I also found this fascinating tidbit from an unnamed source.

In the mid 1960s I had a friend who acted as a night watchmen of sorts at the castle. He had a small apartment on the second floor. At the time, most of the rooms were open and the first floor was used for meetings by the Rochester Garden Society. At the time, there seems that there were more trees. There is a tunnel between the formal gardens and the house. Evidently originally used by the help, to get food to the garden for outdoor parties. It could have been used as an emergency escape route. Facing the grand staircase, there were grilled doors on each side of the staircase. The one on the right held garden tools the one to the left went to the house. The house entrance to the tunnel has been concealed.

I also understand that the house was originally built for the owner’s wife and was a diminutive copy of her home in Scotland.



Filling in the remaining chronology of the Warner Castle story, the Rochester Civic Garden Center states:

Frank Dennis died in 1927 and Merry Dennis continued to live in the castle until her death in 1936. Dennis’ relatives contested her will and the estate was not settled until eight years after her death. The castle became a sanitarium in 1944 when it was purchased from the estate by Christopher Gainers a self-styled naturopath.

The City of Rochester bought the property in 1951 and the castle and grounds became part of Highland Park, an internationally known arboretum. The City’s Parks Department’s offices and herbarium were located in the castle and the Sunken Garden became a popular location for weddings and wedding photographers. The Rochester Civic Garden Center’s headquarters now occupy the building.

In 1961 an agreement between the City of Rochester and the County of Monroe turned the responsibility of the maintenance of the castle grounds and Rochester’s major parks over to the Monroe County Parks Department.

Time, weather and vandalism took their toll of the garden’s infrastructure and in 1988 the garden was closed to the public because of the Monroe County Parks Department’s concern for visitors’ safety. A year-long study of the site, funded by the Institute for Museum Services, was undertaken by Doell and Doell, Historic Landscape Preservation Planners and Environmental Design and Research, P.C. of Syracuse, NY.

Restoration of the Sunken Garden’s infrastructure was completed in October 1991, with funds from Monroe County and an Environmental Quality Bond Act Grant. The garden’s stone walls were repointed and missing stones replaced. Paving stones, an important landscape design element included in DeForest’s design for the garden were also replaced.

The historically appropriate plant material was replaced through the cooperative efforts of The Landmark Society of Western New York, the Seventh District of the Federated Garden Clubs, and the Genesee Finger Lakes Nursery and Landscape Association in 1993. The plant material restoration project received the New York State Preservation League’s Historic Landscape Preservation Award in 1995 and illustrates what can be accomplished through the cooperative efforts of the public and private sector.

The Rochester Civic Garden Center, a not-for-profit horticultural education center, is chartered by the Board of Regents of the State of New York. Their mission is to improve the quality of life in the Genesee Region by fostering knowledge, providing information, increasing interest, and promoting all aspects of gardening and horticulture. 2

Not surprisingly for a man who had the audacity, fiances, and willpower to create his own castle in a burgeoning industrial city like Rochester, there is plenty of surviving material about Warner’s life to investigate and maul over. According to letters on file in the Warner Papers at the University of Rochester’s Rare Books and Special Collection., H.G. Warner was born and grew up in Canann NY in 1801. Horatio Gates was son of Daniel Warner and Olive Douglas and grandson of William and Rebecca Lupton Warner. H.G. Warner’s brother, Wiliam H. graduated from West Point in 1836. He was supposedly killed by Native Americans in the Sierra Nevada in 1849.

 He grew up in Livingston County, and was admitted to the bar in Madison County in 1826, the same year in which he was graduated from Union College. He was married to Sarah Warner in 1831 and in 1835 he was appointed judge of the Court of Common Pleas by Governor Marcy. The Warner family moved to Rochester in 1840, where Judge Warner practiced law in partnership with Delos Wentworth. He received an LL.D. degree from Union College in 1860. He died February 11, 1876 in Georgia.

Judge Warner’s varied interests are apparent in his service to the community as editor of The Rochester Courier, which was published during the presidential campaign in 1848. He was also publisher, for a time, of the Daily Advertiser before its consolidation with the Union. For several years he was president of the old Bank of Rochester and a trustee of the East Side Savings Bank. At the time of his death he was a regent of the University of the State of New York.

Volume XVIII · Autumn 1962 · Number 1 From California by Sea in 1852

The UR collection is extensive and deserves much more scrutiny. In Box X, for example, there is documentation about various lawsuits he was involved in, including one that had his brother William as the plaintive, and one that Warner levied against Alvah Strong in 1863. Strong was an influential person in Rochester during that time, so I am curious to learn more about that.

In Box XI, I noticed that there are writings about his trips to Panama and California, as well as essays about Constitution Island, West Point.

And in Box XII, I see that he was also a poet and drawer.

Most intriguingly however is what I read about Warner’s engagement with a Georgian plantation after the Civil War from 1870 to 1873.  Without casting any aspersions, I think this business venture merits further inquiry.  After-all, a man of such grandiosity wouldn’t mind a little extra attention, don’t you think?

The Warner Castle property was built in 1854 by businessman Horatio Gates Warner to resemble his wife’s house in Scotland.

Notable Documents in the University of Rochester HGW Collection

Box IX: Horatio Gates Warner – Business Transactions

  • Bank Book, 1853-1856
  • Bills and Receipts, 1846-1889
  • Cancelled Checks, ca1856-1865
  • Deeds and Land Contracts, 1849-1867
  • Expenses of Horatio Douglas Warner at Union College, 1859-1860
  • Georgia Plantation, 1870-1873
  • Income Tax, 1850-1863
  • Rochester Bank – Bonds and Stock Transactions, 1858-1865
  • Rochester Daily Advertiser and Republican – Ownership Transactions, 1849-1855
  • Seneca Warner – Mortgage, 1852-1860

Box X: Horatio Gates Warner – Law Practice

  • Asahel Warner et al. against William B. Warner, 1843
  • H.G. Warner et al. against George G. Cooper, 1857
  • H.G. Warner against James F. Royce, 1858
  • H.G. Warner against Alvah Strong et. al., 1863
  • William H. Warner against Luther King, 1846
  • Miscellaneous Law Papers

Box XI: Horatio Gates Warner – Writings

  • Essays – Constitution Island, West Point
  • Essays – Panama
  • Essays – Southern U.S.
  • Essays and Short Stories – California
  • Essays and Short Stories – Miscellaneous
  • Journals and Diaries – California, 1850-1852, and Almanac, 1855
  • Manuscript – California

Box XII: Horatio Gates Warner – Writings and drawings

  • Poetry
  • Political Essays, Editorials, and Petitions
  • Speeches
  • Miscellaneous Writings
  • Drawings


Warner Castle is open to the public – Visitors Welcome. Reservations requested for groups of 8 or more. Children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday 9:00am – 4:00pm. Admission is free.

The caste iron around the building’s exterior is marvelous. It is also used in the Sunken Garden.

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